The Woman in White (novel)

The Woman in White (novel)

infobox Book |
name = The Woman in White

image_caption =
author = Wilkie Collins
cover_artist =
country = United Kingdom
language = English
series =
genre = Epistolary, Mystery Novel, Sensation novel
publisher = "All the Year Round"
release_date = 1859 - 1860
media_type = Print (Hardback & Paperback)
pages =
isbn = NA
preceded_by = The Dead Secret
followed_by = No Name

"The Woman in White" is an epistolary novel written by Wilkie Collins in 1859, serialized in 1859-1860, and first published in book form in 1860. It is considered to be among the first mystery novels and is widely regarded as one of the first (and finest) in the genre of 'sensation novels'.

Plot introduction

A poor art master, Walter Hartright, is employed to teach two young women in Cumberland, and falls in love with one of them, Laura. His feelings are returned, but she is already engaged to another. They are parted and she marries, but she and Marian, her resourceful half-sister, are then caught up in her new husband's plot to steal her fortune and identity. Laura is stripped of her name and money, and almost of her sanity, but is rescued by Marian and protected by the faithful Hartright. He and Marian battle to expose the fraud and reclaim Laura's identity, fortune and position in society. Throughout the story they encounter a mysterious woman in white, whose own sad story seems entangled with those of Laura and her husband, and who plays a crucial role in the novel's main events.

Explanation of the novel's title

The "woman in white" is Anne Catherick, an important character whose history bears greatly on the lives of the novel's protagonists. She has always worn white because of advice received in childhood from Laura's late mother, whom she loved for her kindness.

Plot summary

Poor art master Walter Hartright encounters a mysterious woman dressed all in white on a moonlit road in Hampstead. She is in a state of confusion and distress, and Hartright helps her to find her way back to London. In return, she warns him against a certain (unnamed) baronet, "a man of rank and title". Immediately after they part, Hartright learns that she may have escaped from an asylum.

He goes to Cumberland to take up a position as art tutor at Limmeridge House to two young women: Marian Halcombe and her wealthy half-sister, Laura Fairlie. He finds to his amazement that the story of the woman in white, Anne Catherick, may be entangled with the lives of the two sisters. Walter and Laura fall rapidly in love but she is soon to be married, by her late father's wish, to Sir Percival Glyde, a baronet. Hartright resigns and travels abroad to forget.

Marian moves in with Laura and her husband. The marriage is unhappy, and Marian soon realises that Sir Percival is attempting to gain control of Laura's fortune with the help of his Italian friend Count Fosco, a menacing yet charming and intelligent villain with an enigmatic past. She also meets the mysterious Anne Catherick, who hates and fears Sir Percival, blaming him for sending her to the asylum to keep her from revealing his "secret". Marian tries to untangle the mystery and protect her sister from Sir Percival and Fosco, but falls ill. When she recovers she is told first that Laura has gone to London, and then that she has died there. Anne Catherick, it appears, has been recaptured and is back at the asylum.

Walter returns to England and visits Limmeridge to mourn at Laura's grave, only to encounter Marian and a living Laura at the graveside. Laura's death has been faked: Anne Catherick, who greatly resembles Laura, died in London, and was buried as Laura. Laura's property has all passed to Sir Percival. Laura herself was sent to the asylum as Anne, where her protestations were dismissed as proof of insanity, and the ordeal almost destroyed her before Marian discovered the substitution and bribed a member of staff to help her escape.

The rest of the novel traces the attempts of Marian and Walter to safeguard Laura from capture and return to the asylum, to nurse her back to health, to expose the plot and to force Laura's family and friends to acknowledge her identity. In the process Walter meets Anne's strange mother and uncovers Sir Percival's dark secret - his parents were not legally married, so he is not the rightful owner of his property or title. Walter tries to obtain church registers as evidence, in order to blackmail Sir Percival into confessing, but the baronet starts a fire to destroy them and burns to death in the ensuing blaze. With his death there is some hope of proving the plot and regaining Laura's fortune, but Walter does fulfil his vow that Laura - now Mrs Hartright - should be publicly acknowledged at Limmeridge as herself. Nor is there any further threat from Fosco, who is murdered by an Italian secret society he has betrayed, and his body is thrown into the river.

Characters in "The Woman in White"

* Walter Hartright - A poor artist who earns his living as a drawing master
* Frederick Fairlie - A fanciful, selfish invalid, owner of Limmeridge House in Cumberland
* Laura Fairlie - His gentle, pretty niece, an heiress and an orphan
* Marian Halcombe - Laura's half-sister and companion, not attractive but intelligent and resourceful. She's secretly in love with Walter.
* Anne Catherick - [aka: "The Woman in White"] A young woman said to be of disordered wits. Possibly an illegitimate daughter of Laura's father
* Mrs Catherick - Anne's strange and unsympathetic mother, somehow in league with Sir Percival Glyde
* Sir Percival Glyde - Laura's fiance and then husband. An unpleasant baronet with a secret.
* Count Fosco - Sir Percival's friend. A grossly obese Italian with a mysterious past. Eccentric, urbane, intelligent and menacing. Greatly admires Marian for her intellect.
* Countess Fosco - Laura's aunt, once a giddy girl but now humourless, cold and in thrall to her husband and his schemes.
* Professor Pesca - A teacher of Italian, and a good friend of Hartright. Finds him the Limmeridge job, and proves Fosco's unexpected nemesis

Literary analysis

The various strands of the plot combine to produce what is widely regarded to be a thrilling story, leading this particular type of fiction to be described as 'sensation'.

"The Woman In White" is also an early example of a particular type of Collins narrative in which several characters in turn take up the telling of the story. This creates a complex web in which readers are unsure which narrators can, and cannot, be trusted. Collins used this technique in his other novels, including "The Moonstone". This technique was copied by other novelists, including Bram Stoker, author of "Dracula" (1897), although by the end of the 19th century the technique was considered "old fashioned".

As was customary at that time, "The Woman in White" was first published as a magazine serial. The first episode appeared on 29 November 1859, following Charles Dickens's own "A Tale of Two Cities" in Dickens's magazine "All the Year Round" in England, and "Harper's Magazine" in America. It caused an immediate sensation. Julian Symons (in his 1974 introduction to the Penguin edition) reports that "queues formed outside the offices to buy the next instalment. Bonnets, perfumes, waltzes and quadrilles were called by the book's title. Gladstone cancelled a theatre engagement to go on reading it. And Prince Albert sent a copy to Baron Stockmar."

A strong theme in the novel is that of marriage and its impact on women (in particular on Laura Fairlie). The plot revolves around men stealing women's identities.

The character of Count Fosco is a brilliant man, equally at home in art as in science. A devotee of the opera, he is also a deep student of chemistry who makes use of his pharmaceutical skills to further his treacherous plots. He is flamboyant, operatic, charismatic, Falstaffian, pert, throbbing, courtly, bombastic, refined, romantic, and even tender-hearted (at least in regard to the little mice and birds he keeps), a breathtaking, swashbuckling, larger-than-life villain whose exceeding pleasure in his own malevolent genius is only properly witnessed when he is forced to reveal his villainy, in all its glory, in a written confession at the climax of the novel.


* 2004 Andrew Lloyd Webber stage musical "The Woman in White"

Film and television
* 1912 Hollywood silent film
**imdb title|id=0184032|title=The Woman In White
* 1912 Hollywood silent film
**imdb title|id=0274221|title=The Woman In White
* 1917 Hollywood silent film
**imdb title|id=0184033|title=The Woman In White
* 1929 British silent film adapted by Robert Cullen starring Haddon Mason as Walter Hartright and Louise Prussing as Marian Halcombe
**imdb title|id=0020601|title=The Woman In White
*The 1940 film "Crimes at the Dark House" (1940) directed by George King is loosely based on "The Woman in White" with Tod Slaughter playing the part of the false Sir Percival Glyde and Hay Petrie as Count Fosco.
* 1948 Hollywood film adapted by Stephen Morehouse Avery starring Gig Young as Walter Hartright, Alexis Smith as Marian Halcombe, and Sydney Greenstreet as Count Fosco.
**imdb title|id=0040974|title=The Woman In White
* 1982 BBC miniseries adapted by Ray Jenkins starring Daniel Gerroll as Walter Hartright and Diana Quick as Marian Halcombe
**imdb title|id=0133324|title=The Woman In White
* 1982 Soviet film under the Russian title "Zhenshchina v belom", directed by Vadim Derbenyov and starring Aleksandr Abdulov as Walter Hartright and Lithuanian actress Gražina Baikštite as both Laura Fairlie and Anne Catherick
**imdb title|id=0161117|title=Zhenshchina v belom
* 1997 BBC TV series adapted by David Pirie starring Andrew Lincoln as Walter Hartright and Tara Fitzgerald as Marian Halcombe; also broadcast on PBS television in 1998
**imdb title|id=0137279|title=The Woman In White
* A Woman in White was featured in the Pilot episode of the CW's Supernatural

* Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child published the novel "Brimstone" (2004), featuring a modern re-imagining of the villain Count Fosco.
* James Wilson, "The Dark Clue" (2001): a "sequel" to "The Woman in White"

External links


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